Back in 1932 I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago’s Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. I kissed Nettie good-bye, clattered downstairs to our Model A and, in a fresh Lake Michigan breeze, chugged out of Chicago on Route 66.
However, outside the city, I discovered that in my anxiety at leaving, had forgotten my music case. I wheeled around and headed back. I found Nettie sleeping peacefully. I hesitated by her bed; something was strongly telling me to stay. But eager to get on my way, and not wanting to disturb Nettie, I shrugged off the feeling and quietly slipped out of the room with my music.
The next night, in the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. People were happily singing and clapping around me, but I could hardly keep from crying out. I rushed to a phone and called home. All I could hear on the other end was “Nettie is dead. Nettie is dead.”
When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve Him any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well.
But then, as I hunched alone in that dark apartment those first sad days, I thought back to the afternoon I went to St. Louis. Something kept telling me to stay with Nettie. Was that something God? Oh, if I had paid more attention to Him that day, I would have stayed and been with Nettie when she died. From that moment on I vowed to listen more closely to Him.
But still I was lost in grief . . . On the following Saturday evening . . . I sat down at the piano, and my hands began to browse over the keys. Something happened to me then – I felt at peace. I feel as though I could reach out and touch God. I found myself playing a melody, one I’d never heard or played before, and the words just seemed to fall into place:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, let me stand!
I am tired, I am weak,
I am worn. Through the storm,
through the night, lead me on to the light,
Take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home.
The Lord gave me these words and melody, He also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power. And so I go on living for God willingly and joyfully, until that day comes when He will take me and gently lead me home.
This testimony of Thomas Dorsey was published in Guideposts in 1987. It has circulated around the internet in recent years where it has been mistakenly attributed to big band leader Tommy Dorsey. Despite the similarity in names, and the fact that they were prominent during roughly the same era, they are not the same person. Tommy Dorsey was a white band leader who did not write gospel music or display any interest in the gospel as far as I have heard.
Thomas Dorsey was black, the son of an itinerant preacher and an organist. He developed a love of music from his mother and an interest in the gospel from his father. However, when the family fell on hard times, his musical interest turned to the blues. While still in his teens, he began playing the piano and singing in bars and other settings not conducive to Christian faith. His mother urged him to change his life and use his talents to serve the Lord. He tried for a time, but soon was back playing in bars.
One night, when he was 25 Dorsey noticed an unsteadiness in his playing. The unsteadiness grew worse, leaving him unable to practice, write or perform. It lasted for two or three years. Doctors were unable to help him. Finally, he made a new commitment of faith, was healed and vowed to do the Lord’s work. Still, he found there was more money to be made playing the blues and writing blues songs and oscillated between the blues and gospel music until the tragic death of his first wife. From then on he dedicated his life solely to gospel music and served as a choir director until well into his eighties.
He wrote hundreds of gospel songs, many of which have become staples among black Christians. Another that is well known among white Christians is Peace in the Valley.
I am tired and weary but I must toil on
Till the Lord come to call me away
Where the morning is bright and the Lamb is the light
And the night is fair as the day
There’ll be peace in the valley for me some day
There’ll be peace in the valley for me
I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be
There’ll be peace in the valley for me